In the never-ending battle to woo customers to your own mortgage company or bank and to secure customer loyalty by offering innovative products, it may be time to take a page from our credit card brethren.
Both sectors deal in a product that the consumer perceives as a commodity. There have been some attempts to "brand" mortgages and credit cards in the past. While the results of these campaigns are difficult to measure, no mortgage lender appears to have a definitive, differentiable image in customers' minds.
It is hard for any company to demonstrate long-lasting gains in market share because borrowers preferred its brand over another. Experience shows that customers do not demand a specific lender for new mortgages, and recent experience has added the cruel lesson that a majority of our customers will switch to different lenders when they want to refinance their mortgages.
This is where recent developments in credit cards are so instructive. Large market shares now belong to companies such as General Motors and AT&T, which did not even issue credit cards 10 years ago.
How did they do it? By cobranding and thereby offering the borrower a differentiation from other cards. When consumers use one of these new cards, they are not only getting financing to buy a meal at a restaurant or a new piece of furniture; they are also getting frequent-flier miles, or free gas, or credits toward the purchase of a new car, or some other benefit that induces them to use that particular card.
While many of the financial details and ramifications remain to be worked out, is there any reason why this same concept cannot be applied to mortgages? What if your mortgage company were able to team up with a company such as GM or Shell Oil to offer a customer points, redeemable for merchandise that your customer values, every time they make a payment?
Would this ability to accumulate points applicable to items entirely outside the scope of the normal mortgage (just as the items offered by the cobranded credit cards are entirely outside the scope of the normal credit card transaction) act as a true differentiator for your product in the marketplace?
In addition, there are potential financial rewards. Many cobranded credit cards, especially those tied to frequent-flier miles, are able to maintain annual fees more effectively than non-cobranded cards in the fight for market share.
Customers, in their estimation of value added by the merchandise provided by the cobrander, have been willing to pay the fees. AT&T has been a notable exception, using the promise of no fees as a differentiator.
The concept of a cobranded mortgage does sound odd to a traditional mortgage lender, and there are many details to be worked out before the first one is ready to go. The very first cobrander may not get everything right, either.
However, if the credit card experience is any guide, the first mortgage lender who can offer customers a cobranded mortgage with genuine value added will have a real differentiator in the market and should be rewarded with gains in market share for new applications and improved retention during times of refinancing if the value of cobranding is tied to some longer-term measures, like monthly payments.
In a time of intense competition and scrambling for market share, these are rewards worth pondering.
Mr. Neagle is a managing consultant for EDS Management Consulting Services, Rosemont, Ill.